New Delhi, India – As countries globally began enforcing strict lockdowns to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, India, the world’s second most populous country, followed suit.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday announced a 21-day lockdown to contain the virus spread that has now killed 17 Indians and infected more than 700 others.
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The South Asian nation reported its first coronavirus case on January 30 but in recent weeks the number of infections has climbed rapidly, worrying public health experts who say the government should have acted sooner.
“The police will beat me. I’m afraid they’ll beat me.” Police across India are using force against violators of the country’s 21-day nationwide coronavirus lockdown. pic.twitter.com/cviSrdSs54
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) March 26, 2020
India’s main opposition Congress party has also criticised the government over a delayed response.
Government defends lockdown
But the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Sundhanshu Mittal said India was one of few countries to have acted swiftly and decisively to contain the outbreak.
“You can’t have knee-jerk reactions to such catastrophes without evaluating and anticipating the scale of the problem and looking at the international domain knowledge and consensus. A lot of administrative decisions were made,” he said.
India’s Health and Family Welfare Ministry claims the rate of increase in infections has stabilised. “While the numbers of COVID-19 cases are increasing, the rate at which they are increasing appears to be relatively stabilising. However, this is only the initial trend,” a spokesperson said.
According to the latest report by the country’s top medical research body, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), 27,688 coronavirus tests had been carried out by 9am on Friday.
“A total of 691 individuals have been confirmed positive among suspected cases and contacts of known positive cases,” read the ICMR update. On Thursday, India witnessed the highest daily increase in COVID-19 cases of 88 people.
While the numbers do not paint a grim picture compared to other countries that are finding it difficult to contain the virus, concern is growing among healthcare experts who believe that the number of infections could be far higher than what is being reported.
Academics from three American universities and the Delhi School of Economics in a report based on current trends and demographics have claimed that India could experience as many as 1.3 million coronavirus infections by mid-May.
Scaling up testing facilities
Experts also say India’s capacity to test is poor and more robust testing would reveal the true extent of the pandemic.
“Could Yogi not have arranged even a bus for us, Is it because we’re? Poor?”-Rajneesh, is walking 247Km on foot to Bareilly. “Poverty will kill us before the virus”- If we airlift Indians how can we abandon millions of our poor. If states wont, let the Army. My #Mojo report pic.twitter.com/mZhRPO5bQf
— barkha dutt (@BDUTT) March 26, 2020
“We have to test anyone who is showing any symptoms, we can’t be restricted to hospitalised cases or those with travel history,” said Dr T Sundaraman, the national convener of the People’s Health Movement.
“We don’t know much because the rate of testing is still modest and very limited. If the testing expands we may find the real numbers which we don’t have,” he told Al Jazeera.